01-Dec-2010 - STANDPOINT Column by Tim CONGDON
December issue of Standpoint
The last two months have been among the most interesting of my life. Like most people in this country, I have been horrified by the transfer of powers, or so-called “competences”, from our own Parliament to the institutions of the European Union. Since I joined the UK Independence Party in January 2007 a small group of members has encouraged me to try for the leadership, even though the leader from 2006 to 2009 and the party’s most well-known publicist – Nigel Farage MEP – has a strong following. When Lord Pearson stood down from the leadership in August, I “threw my hat into the ring”. In the end Farage secured three times as many votes as me and so is again leader, but I came second and my supporters are not too unhappy. When I started in late August, I was a 50-to-1 outsider.
I am about to make a confession which beforehand I would not have believed possible: I greatly enjoyed the hubbub and tension of competitive politics. I also learned a great deal about my country and its misgovernment. In particular, the experience brought home how important the insights of the Virginia School of Political Economy, or “the economics of politics”, are to modern political activity. Its leaders – James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock – did their main work in the 1960s and 1970s, but its relevance to understanding the European Union’s emasculation of our own parliamentary institutions is greater than ever.
Buchanan and Tullock’s central point was that the tools of economic analysis can be applied to topics such as politics, bureaucracy, law, constitutions and so on, as well as to economists’ more familiar concerns like the determination of prices and quantities of goods and services. When they were writing, an implicit assumption of most public debate was that the government existed to serve the public interest. By extension, the purpose of political action was Benthamite, to achieve the greatest good of the greatest number.
The Virginia School’s most devastating proposition was that the Benthamite assumption was invalid. Politicians are human beings, not the expressions of “the general will”, whatever that might be; they are greedy and imperfect, and have their own self-interested material aspirations. So in practice many government decisions are taken with a view to the aggrandizement – including the financial aggrandizement – of political cliques, the greatest good of oneself and one’s chums.
Of course politicians’ personal gain is not the only influence on government decisions, and the balance between the high-minded public interest and low-grade private interests varies over time and between nations. The MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009 showed that in Britain the balance had moved dangerously in the wrong direction and confirmed the validity of Peter Oborne’s analysis in his 2007 minor classic, The Triumph of the Political Class.
Oborne’s indictment extended beyond Parliament. To quote, “the civil service, the political parties, the judiciary, the intelligence services and the media have all been captured or compromised”. But Oborne was curiously silent on the greatest of these scandals in our era, the capture and compromise of virtually the entire British political system by the EU bureaucracy. Today most of our legislation, under the alien labels of “directives” and “regulations”, emerges from the European Council of Ministers by a mysterious process that only a handful of people in this country understand.
In the Britain of 1960 millions of people flocked to the cinema to view with pride such films as The Dambusters and Sink the Bismarck. How can that same nation submit, 50 years later, to foreign control of its farming, fisheries, energy resources, financial regulation and external trade, as well to the undermining of legal protections (such as habeas corpus and trial by jury) which have been basic to its constitutional tradition for centuries?
The answer, in essence, is that the British political class has been bribed. Too many of its members have taken decisions for the greater good of themselves and their chums. The corruption at work is largely insidious and opaque, with two processes being particularly important. First, lazy and rather dim politicians have ceded powers to foreign bureaucrats for the sake of a soft life. The truth is that nowadays very few government ministers write their speeches, organize their diaries and set up their meetings. In effect, they are told what they can and cannot do by civil servants.
Not surprisingly, over time the national bureaucracies have become contemptuous of the people’s elected representatives. Civil servants see the organization of an international, pan-European bureaucracy under EU auspices as the means of transferring power to where it ought to belong, namely to themselves. Bureaucrats have the great advantage over the politicians that they are much cleverer and do not have to seek re-election, and in the EU they are undoubtedly winning the battle for control.
Secondly, the civil servants invent structures that encourage politicians to approve further integration. For example, the European Parliament now offers subsidies (ostensibly to pay for “research” and such like) to MEPs who form “pan-European groupings” and “pan-European parties”. So subsidies to promote European integration are now being offered to MEPs of separatist parties – including the UK Independence Party – who are supposed to be totally opposed to it.
If the Virginia School is right, these MEPs – meant to protect their country’s independence – might even accept the money that is being dangled in front of them.